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Business Observer Friday, May 13, 2005 15 years ago

Cherry Picker

Homebuilder Brian Pruett honed his niche by creating mini-resorts. The key to his craftsmanship is stability - using the same contractors for 20 years.
by: Adam Hughes Staff Writer

Cherry Picker

By Isabelle Gan

Special to the Review

Brian Pruett, the 47-year-old CEO of Pruett Builders, thrives on challenge.

"Whatever I get involved in, my competitiveness comes out," says Pruett, who heads one of Sarasota's most successful luxury home building companies. "I've been that way since I was a kid."

As a 5-year-old, Pruett ran five miles to prove to his brother he could do it. As a teenager studying Tae Kwan Do, he earned a third-degree black belt and competed in the state tournament.

The same goes for building houses.

"We made sure we had a unique product," he says. "People could go right to our homes and say, 'This is a Pruett house.' "

Exposed to the construction world at a young age, Pruett, a St. Petersburg native, and his two older brothers, Brent and Brad Pruett, spent their summers in high school and college doing structural concrete work on high-rise buildings in the St. Petersburg and Tampa area.

Oldest brother Brent Pruett started a building company in the 1970s in Grand Junction, Colo., at a time when the town was experiencing an oil boom. There he started remodeling and selling houses under the Pruett name.

Brad Pruett stayed in the Tampa area to work in construction.

Brian Pruett attended college, earning dual degrees in marketing and finance at the University of South Florida. By the early 1980s, he was a money manager at Prudential-Bache in Sarasota.

But he longed for more.

"I've always liked the creativity that comes with designing and building," he says. "There's something about actually seeing the fruits of your labor."

In the meantime, in Colorado, Brent Pruett found himself in the middle of a depressed economy after an oil bust affected the whole state. It didn't take much to convince him to move to Sarasota.

In 1983, Brent and Brian formed a partnership and started Pruett Builders. Their first homes were a family project. Brad and Brent did most of the framing and interior trim. Brian, who still worked in finance, provided the business expertise.

Their first product was a group of 1,700- to 2,500-square-foot homes in the $100,000 range in a new subdivision called Sherwood Forest, east of McIntosh Road, north of Bahia Vista Street.

Even then, the brothers delivered a product that surpassed expectations. In a 1985 Sarasota Herald Tribune article, a Pruett home selling for $84,000 is described as having 12-foot ceilings, a bleached oak foyer and brick courtyard entry - features not usually found in that price range.

A photograph captures the three brothers standing in front of one of their creations, an open-beam cedar house on Little John Trail, showcased at the Sarasota Contractors' Association Parade of Homes.

Brian Pruett stands out in his business attire, while his brothers flank him in collared shirts and slacks. "Look at me in my monkey suit," he says grinning. "I got out of the financial business soon after that."

By 1987, Pruett Builders constructed 40 homes a year. And Brian Pruett became more involved with the design aspect of the business.

Three years later, he became the sole Pruett brother at the helm of the Sarasota company after Brent Pruett decided to return to Colorado to form a home building company of his own.

Golf front

In the 1990s, Brian Pruett saw the trend of country club developments looming on the horizon.

"People who lived on the water were finding that they spent most of their time playing golf, so why not build homes on the golf course?" he says.

"At the time, people thought I was nuts."

The company's first foray into luxury home building proved successful in 1995 when he built a few units at Laurel Oak Country Club along Bee Ridge Road, east of Interstate 75. After that, he shifted exclusively to custom luxury home building, producing million-dollar homes.

Throughout the company's growth, Pruett has imprinted his drive for excellence. "We haven't expanded rapidly in terms of how many houses we build so we can control the product," he says

Pruett Builders still builds at a relatively small scale, about 35 to 40 homes annually, in Manatee and Sarasota counties. That allows the company to cultivate lasting relationships with local subcontractors, something bigger national builders are unable to match, he says.

Julie and Richard Aranibar bought a 6,000-square-foot Pruett home in Lakewood Ranch four years ago.

"We saw a lot of inconsistencies with builders who couldn't keep up with the pace of growth," Julie Aranibar says. "My husband and I looked at lots of houses and what we saw was the same subcontractors would go from job site to job site when it came to Brian (Pruett's) homes. That really said something about the builder. We liked the idea that we could trust the workmanship."

The Aranibars also were impressed when they saw the Florida Health House, a Pruett model home in the University Park Country Club, that featured the newest technologies in healthy building, including an air purification system similar to those found in hospitals.

"I had tuberculosis when I was 10 and as a result have had chronic lung problems like asthma and allergies," says Julie Aranibar, who has a background in molecular histology. After seeing that model, she and her husband, a pulmonologist who practices in Bradenton, realized they'd found their builder.

Pruett Builders is at the forefront of environmentally friendly building.

The average Pruett home is 50% more energy efficient than current standards require, Pruett says. And as a result, the company has been awarded the highest recognition in energy efficiency by the National Association of Home Buyers for four consecutive years.

A Pruett home is featured on the homepage of the Florida Green Building Coalition, a non-profit group that set the standards on water and energy efficiency and environmentally friendly building in Florida.

The coalition's executive director, Roy Bonnell, says companies such as Pruett Builders helped the organization develop its green building standards.

Green building and luxury features in Pruett homes are based on Pruett's business philosophy: Deliver what the customer desires.

"Our consumer wants a resort where he lives," he says. "They don't want to have to go to Hawaii. They want to live in the resort."

The company focuses on extravagant details and builds at some of the most prestigious country club developments in the area. The company's most expensive model yet is priced at $4 million: The Villa Del Mar II, a more than 7,000-square-foot model home at the Lakewood Ranch Country Club.

It's a testament to Pruett's business acumen that he understands the market trends so well, especially since his personal preferences are so different. Pruett and his wife have a 70-acre ranch in east Sarasota County to build their family home. But he has actually never played a day of golf in his life, even though he holds expensive club memberships at the developments he has built homes.

"I don't have time," says Brian. "My focus is on the Lord first, my family and then business."

Staying small

Brian says he has no desire to increase production in the coming years. Bigger isn't always better.

"They can't do what we can," he says, referring to national builders that have moved into the area. "Home building is a local industry. We've had 20 years of carefully cultivating relationships with local contractors, such as interior decorators and cabinet makers. We've cherry-picked them over the years."

Although he admits bigger companies have the advantage when it comes to buying and developing large tracts of land - a project he plans to try next.

"I'd like to not only create a home that's a resort but a whole community that brings resort-style living to the consumers," he says. "It's been hard locating the land. But I'm sure I'll find the right place to do it. I'm not in a hurry."

Pruett Builders Inc.

Owner: Brian Pruett

Employees: 35 full time

Gross Sales:

2003: $22 million

2004: $34 million

2005: (projected) $50 million

Strategic Challenge: "The biggest challenge that I foresee is keeping up with the people wanting million-dollar homes. So many baby boomers are expected to come here wanting to buy houses. Anybody can just hire any contractor, but it's harder to find craftsmen and artisans who really know custom home building."

Inspiration: "The Lord. He's the master architect and Master Creator."

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